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March 13, 1997 - Image 28

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The Michigan Daily, 1997-03-13

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88 - The Michigan DailyLiterary Magazine - Thursday, March 13, 1997



The Michigan Daily Lterary Magazine - Thursday, March 13, 1997 - 13B

Short Story
The Month o Dying
By Jeremiah Chamberlin

.hort &tory

October has become a month of
dying in my family. My great-grand-
mother brought us this new season. She

was not supposed to be the first to go,
her husband
Lowell with the
thick hearing I was uil
aids was to die -
first. My par- relieved
ents reminded
my brother and no longer
me with their
eyes in the rear- kid who h
view mirror
during each trip been to a
down to
Midland that it would probably be the
last time we saw our great-grandfather
alive. We were expected to behave like
adults, and though we tried to practice


sitting politely, we inescapably found
each other's bodies with our fists. Our
mother would turn and warn us that we
had better work our childishness out of
our systems
before we
ily reached the city
iat I was My family has
never been good
the only at predictions.
Years passed and
dn' t my great-grand-
father only
Fueraa retreated further
into his brown
polyester pants and his thin blue shirts.
My parents talked loudly, asking him to
tell the family stories that had all been
told and retold. My brother and I lis-

tened in our flowered chairs, learning
the history of names and places, nod-
ding and smiling at our cues. When our
obligatory hour upstairs was finished
we were excused to retreat to the base-
ment. Our freedom was marked by the
soft ring of sleigh bells, nailed on their
dry leather strap to the back of the door
of my great-grandfather's study. They
were the bells that he had hung around
the neck of his mare Gusty when he
had courted my great-grandmother
during the winter of 1919. I imagined
them young, sitting in the sleigh while
the snow fell, the newness of their
hands meeting under the quilts draped
over their laps. I had seen this same
tenderness upstairs, perfected over a
lifetime, as they sat close on the small
tan couch, his hand resting lightly on
her knee.
Years later it was Lowell who woke
up after seventy-five years of shared
mornings, suddenly alone. When we
drove down to Midland I was guiltily
relieved that I was no longer the only
kid in my high school who hadn't been
to a funeral. I wore my tight-throated tie
feeling not the fear of the unfamiliar,
but the curious pull of the new. I want-
ed to suck in age the way I sucked in
whiskey and cigarettes at half-time in
the school parking lot.
My brother and I sat in the third-row
of wood-backed pews with the hymnals
at our feet, hands in our laps. We
watched our first funeral running
through its liturgy as if we were at a






Saturday matinee. The church had seen
my family's beginnings - baptisms
and confirmations, my parents' wed-
ding, and both my father's sisters'. Now
the endings had begun, my great-grand-
mother's coffin center stage, the priest's
soliloquy rising and twisting, deftly
side-stepping death in his praise to life
and God. I stared over the second row
of relatives buffering me from the front
where the immediate family was
ordered. My great-grandfather sat on



Mar. 21
Wally Pleasant



the aisle, his translucent white hair thin
over his skull. Beside him was my
grandfather with his broad shoulders,
my grandmother with her permed curls,
and then my parents, uncomfortable in
the front row, so close to the shiny cof-
A year to the day after my great-
grandmother's death my great-grandfa-
ther walked down the steep stairs to his
study. The basement was always com-
fortably cool even when the heat of
August had baked the small backyard
flat and brown. He apologized at each
summer visit for the lawn, regretfully
acknowledging that he no longer could
keep it up and the neighborhood chil-
dren who had once accepted crisp five-
dollar bills to mow and weed had all
grown up and away. He left a note that
tenth day of October, though my grand-
father never let anyone read it. This
much the family knew: that my great-
'grandfather hefted the twelve-gauge
shotgun with the ivy engraved stock
and rested it snugly on his brass belt
buckle. I could not imagine the way his
thin body must have crumpled around
the sharp crack of the barrel.
Back in our third-row pew again my
brother and I played our silent parts. The
hymnals still slept at our feet and the hard-
wood once again bit into our thighs and
backs. The only change I could discern
was the front row's shift. It was now my
grandfather who sat at -the aisle in his
father's seat. I felt a sweaty panic flush my
face seeing that my own father was now
only separated from the repetitive liturgy
of the priest by his own parents. At that
moment I felt that I too should be obligat-
ed to take my place in the front row,-but I
was suddenly afraid that if I moved, if I
didn't stare straight ahead I might catch a
glimpse of death coming down the aisle.
It was the same fear I felt the time I drove
my Volkswagen back to the end of my
parents' property to sneak a few ciga-
rettes. I had sat in the glow of the head-
lights watching the smoke curl out
See DYING, Page 20B

It used to be that there were only two kinds of men in
Chicago: those who were in love with Tillie Allweiss and
those who hadn't met her yet. Uncle David decreed it, and he
was studying to be a doctor, so he couldn't have been wrong,
at least not in those days. Even poised Aunt Sophie claimed
that she could never find a date until Tillie had gotten mar-
ried, which was always about as believable as her geometry
class stories of Tillie poking innocent Sophie with the point
of a compass until she gave her all the answers. Then I found
out that Tillie married one of Sophie's dates.
Tillie was beautiful, especially at seventy-four, which is
how I remember her. She seemed so tall - five-foot-five -
well, she was five-foot-five until she turned forty and became
pregnant with her third daughter. Then she grew to be five-
six, and she stayed five-six until she was seventy-four. Maybe
I just felt small.
But her hands were her most strik-
ing feature, tipped by her glossy nails But her I
that stayed polished and perfect
always, even in the old black-and- her most
white picture of her, from Chicago. I
used to hold one of those hands while ee
we walked to the supermarket in h g'os 4
Sarasota, where she retired. I'd study
the tips of my short little fingernails that sta
that could barely peek out from the
palm of her firm grip, until I was con- polished
vinced that my hands would look like"
hers when I grew up. Then we'd reach perfect a
the intersection and I'd forget about
fingernails and we'd search our san-
dals for fire ants and sing songs about pretty things that I

Mar. 13

A Song of Love
By Coreen Duffy


Lisa Hunter
Audrey Becker
Mar. 20
Eric, Steve, & Co.
Tom Vesbit
Dan Shere


-Li ro


flew in from the bay and finished the Cheerios, and I did
feel better.
Tillie used to say that if she had had all the money in the
world, she would have become a surgeon. Once I asked her
why everything that .she did always turned out so perfectly,
and she laughed and said that she painted Midas-touch nail
polish on her fingernails. I laughed too, and I ate her challah
and her sour dough bread, and I wore the Halloween cos-
tumes that she sewed, and when we visited her, I slept in
sheets that she'd ironed before smoothing them onto the mat-
tress. And I'd stare at my hands and wonder when they'd grow
up to be like hers. But I couldn't sew on a button without los-
ing the thread and breaking the needle, and I kneaded all of
the air out of my bread dough, until Grandma Tillie would
laugh and say that I was baking matzo. And I do have all the
money in the world, compared to
Grandma Tillie back in Chicago, but
ands were I'm not studying to be a surgeon, and
I think that hospitals smell bad, and I
striking odon't want to be like my Uncle
ipped by Uncle David left Chicago for col-
lege at the beginning of the
y Depression, when he was five-foot-
one, because he was a boy and he had
a chance to become a surgeon and
and earn all the money in the world. Tillie
stayed in Chicago and operated the
(Ways ... cookie counter of a bakery, and paid
David's tuition with her leftover
dough. But Tillie could type a hun-
dred words a minute, and she was just as smart as David, only
much more beautiful. When David came home to visit after
his first semester, he was six feet tall, and Tillie was the boss's
secretary on the ninth floor above the bakery.
Once there was a riot on the street outside the bakery, but
Tillie couldn't see what was going on from the ninth floor,
so her boss made her climb out the window and report what
was happening below and he held her by the ankles from his
office on the ninth floor, because it was the Depression and
he was her boss and he had all the money in the world. But
then the Depression ended, and Tillie got a new job, and
See TILLIE, Page 17B

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didn't understand. My mother insists that Grandma Tillie
was tone-deaf, but I remember that her singing was sooth-
ing. But maybe that's just because it was Grandma Tillie,
and anything she did was beautiful. Once we were walking
down a pebble path to the bay to feed Cheerios to the sea
gulls, and I fell down on the stones and my knee was bleed-
ing and the pain felt like the pebbles had shattered my knee-
cap. Grandma Tillie said that it would feel much better with
a Band-Aid. Then we sat down on a bench under some
weeping willows, and I ate the Cheerios while she sang, Hi-
lily, hi-lily, hi-lo, hi-lo, hi-lily, hi-lily, hi-lo, and the sea gulls

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